Suburban Fire Tactics: Tactical Rescue Decision Making

By James Silvernail

First-due decision making is one of the most critical actions that takes place at a structure fire. Circumstances require fire officers to quickly initiate the appropriate fireground functions to achieve desired tactical objectives. It is well known in the fire service that each incident is unique and each fire is never the same. Often, however, the first-due officer can easily deduct, with a thorough size-up coupled with years of experience and training, the clear-cut initial tactic to implement on arrival. Some structure fires present situations that do not fit the norm and provide challenges that test decision making, especially those involving trapped occupants. The decisions will prove to be even more difficult when the operation is hampered by fewer arriving apparatus, substandard staffing, delayed apparatus, and lack of dedicated truck companies—all often the norm in suburban fire operations.

For many large urban fire departments, rescue operations are often conducted by truck companies whose primary functions are to perform search and rescue procedures and all other functions that support (facilitate) extinguishment, including ventilation, forcible entry, salvage and overhaul, ladder placement, and utility control. Unfortunately, many suburban departments lack dedicated truck companies to arrive simultaneously with the engine company. To compensate for this deficit and conduct thorough, effective operations, suburban fire companies must prioritize fireground functions based on objectives and develop preferred operating methods that reflect specific agency capabilities. (See “Suburban Fire Tactics: Prioritizing Functions and Developing Preferred Operating Methods,” Fire Engineering, March 2011.)

When truckless companies arrive at a structure fire and discover the possibility of trapped occupants, they typically have one of the following three options:

1 Immediately conduct rescue operations without a hoseline (ladder rescues, vent-enter-search, and so on).

2 Deploy a hoseline and begin to locate and contain/confine the fire.

3 Do nothing. (We would like to think that this is not an option; however, on the rare occurrence that a structure is so well-involved, operations may be ineffective. This is very rare and a last-case scenario.)

Before we begin to analyze scenarios, we need to truly look at firefighting priorities and understand objectives. Traditionally, the fire service uses the acronym “REVAS” to document and explain fireground priorities:

  • Rescue.
  • Evacuate.
  • Ventilate.
  • Attack.
  • Salvage.

A word of caution and a clarification are in order when evaluating “REVAS” objectives as a first-due company officer. “REVAS” is absolutely correct; however, it is a priority list, not a “to-do” list.

The best explanation for this philosophy is that the rescue function may not be as it appears. Traditionally, when we think of the act of rescuing, we either picture a search and rescue team advancing into a structure with a methodical search plan or a crew throwing a ladder to a building and either assisting trapped victims to safety or entering the structure to perform a search. But in actuality, when not enough personnel are present for both a rescue and handline deployment, the most beneficial action a first-due crew can perform is placing an attack line between the trapped occupants and the advancing fire.

Let situations and circumstances dictate actions. There are situations in which either initially deploying a handline or conducting a rescue will be the most correct action. This can only be determined by a complete and thorough initial size-up. This size-up should gather all essential facts as to the following:

  • occupancy (type, number of occupants, and possibility of remaining occupants),
  • structure type,
  • fire location, and
  • fire progress (including location, size, growth, spread, and phase).

Once you collect these facts using a 360-degree size-up, you can make decisions and implement tactics.

All situations in the fire service are unique; however, use the matrix above as a general guide when attempting to make this critical decision. It makes the assumption that there is not enough staffing initially available to simultaneously conduct a rescue and deploy a hoseline for fire containment/confinement.


The left side of the matrix indicates the situations where rescue, without attack line deployment, is absolutely imperative and mandated. Life safety is our number one priority in the fire service. Buildings can be rebuilt; however, lives cannot be restored. Therefore, we should never regard property over life, and our tactics should always reflect this. When it is within our abilities as an engine company, we must make all efforts to swiftly remove all occupants from harm. The key variables to this circumstance are capability and speed.

  • How many victims can we realistically pull from a burning building before we lose complete containment of the fire from its area of origin, lose egress, and endanger the entire structure to an advancing fire?
  • How quickly do we need to be within the structure? Do we have time to guess and perform a search without a safety net (attack line)?

It is never advisable to perform functions inside of a burning structure without the protection of a handline. However, there are situations in which we can operate to save lives and assume risk without them, such as the following:

  • Ladder rescues.
  • Vent-enter-search procedures.

Remember, if you elect one of these tactics, you are delaying control of the fire. Therefore, it is somewhat of a gamble. With a rapidly advancing fire, you might only get the opportunity to enter one room before the entire floor of origin is engulfed. You can throw a ladder and enter a structure quickly, but it still takes time. Knowing the exact location is critical! If you guess wrong, you might not have another opportunity. Make informed fireground decisions; don’t needlessly gamble!

If you elect to defer deployment of the attack line, you should not only know the exact location of the victims but also be able to verify that the rescue will involve only a very limited number of trapped occupants. Realistically, removing an unconscious adult takes time and personnel. Your crew has limitations, and you should be aware of them. If you have more than one occupant in numerous locations within the structure, your decision to save one might be sacrificing others. This is not a very good tactical choice when your goal is to do the most good for everyone involved.


Unfortunately, you may not always have enough personnel to immediately conduct both rescue and line deployment functions. Often, the most beneficial action you can initiate for trapped occupants is to place the attack line between the fire and them to remove the hazard (extinguish the fire). Initiating the interior attack, for most suburban departments, is the first action of rescue.

Does it take time to pull a line, charge it, and place it in the proper position in the structure? The answer is an emphatic yes. However, it is the only answer you have to remove the hazard or at least place protection between the hazard and every occupant in the building. It also establishes safety for interior operating crews and hopefully ensures a protected egress point for all interior occupants (including firefighters).

With regard to trapped occupants, it is essential to initiate line deployment immediately in the following circumstances:

  • the number of victims is unknown.
  • there is a large number of known victims.
  • the locations of victims is unknown.
  • the location of the fire is unknown.
  • the location of the fire prevents rescue access or egress.

There is no reason to take a gamble with an advancing fire. You cannot justify searching in unknown locations for unknown victims while allowing a free-burning fire to gain ground on occupants and the structure. The same holds true with numerous trapped occupants. A crew can only physically remove so many victims in a timely manner. The optimal tactic is to begin fire containment and start controlling the hazard, separating it from the victims. This will also set the stage for the incident and allow later-arriving companies to filter in and assist in the rescue process.

The location of the fire can also dictate tactics in the rescue. For example, what would happen to crew members who choose not to deploy an attack line and begin a search for a trapped occupant on a third floor of a three-story residential structure, only to find a fire that has advanced below them and has taken over the stairwell? This is a terrible situation to be in and would probably result in deployment of personal safety harnesses.

It is true that we assume risk when conducting firefighting operations—especially rescues; however, these risks are calculated and performed with the possibility of saving occupants. Line deployment is also for firefighter safety. It protects points of egress and may also be necessary to gain access to the interior and trapped victims.

The reality of suburban firefighting—or any firefighting, for that matter—is that line deployment should almost always be immediately initiated by the first-arriving apparatus that has a pump. The reason for this is that we rarely know the exact location of the occupants and exactly how many are trapped. It is extremely dangerous to enter a structure without a hoseline, without control of stairwells, and without protected points of egress.

Fireground decision making is never easy, especially for the first-due company officer. There are far too many variables involved. Experience, training, and established preferred operating methods can assist with this process and lead to effective, consistent operations.

JAMES SILVERNAIL, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain and training officer for the Metro-West Fire Protection District in St. Louis County, Missouri. He instructs for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and the National Fire Academy, is a member of MO-TF1 (FEMA USAR), and has a master’s degree.

James Silvernail will present “Suburban Fire Tactics” on Monday, April 16, 2012, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., and “Suburban Fire Tactics” on Thursday, April 19, 2012, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC in Indianapolis.

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